New legal referral department to be in place at Human Services Ministry

To effectively manage ‘Pro-bono 500 Initiative’

Following the launch of the Legal Pro-bono 500 Initiative on Thursday, the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security will be looking to establish a legal pro-bono referral department within the Ministry to ensure that the programme is effectively managed and sustained.

This will be done through engagement with the United Nations Population Fund under the Spotlight Initiative – the global initiative funded by the European Union to end violence against women and girls worldwide – for funding and technical support.

The Legal Pro-bono 500 Initiative was launched on Thursday to expand the reach of legal services and representation for victims of violence.

The Ministry and Bar Association of Guyana executed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) last Thursday which outlines their respective obligations and responsibilities to the newly launched initiative, including the Bar Association’s commitment to providing pro-bono legal services to 500 gender-based violence victims.

In conceptualizing this initiative, Dr. Persaud had in mind expanding the provision and reach of free legal services to persons experiencing gender-based violence. In fact, at her first meeting with the Association earlier this year, she said: “Even though there’s ‘Legal Aid,’ we have a lot of women who come regularly to the Ministry because they can’t access legal support. Most of them are desperate and without any financial recourse. We also have a lot of cases in the hinterland. The idea is to get to those inaccessible places that go beyond the reach of legal aid.”

Human Services Minister Dr. Vindhya Persaud (left) looks on as Permanent Secretary Shannielle Hoosein-Outar (center) signs the MOU with President of the Guyana Bar Association Pauline Chase.

The Ministry has recognized that the Bar Association is equipped with the necessary resources and expertise to provide such high quality essential legal services and is therefore a reliable strategic partner to provide additional free legal services to gender-based violence victims.

“While I am able to send some of the women to ‘Legal Aid,’ I believe much more is needed than that for the practical reason that ‘Legal Aid’ is not across the country. I’ve been sort of prevailing on people’s goodwill and asking a few people I know to help out, but seeing the need and that a few were willing to help out, I thought it might be good to have a formalized structure where those attorneys who are willing could be part of this effort,” Dr. Persaud has said.

Through the partnership between the Ministry and Bar Association, 50 attorneys will do a minimum of 10 Domestic Violence cases per year.

Her vision is for at least 50 attorneys to do a minimum of 10 domestic violence cases per year. “We can even increase the numbers of lawyers so that they have less to do,” Dr. Persaud had suggested. As a form of incentive, she is also thinking about the possibility of hosting an annual awards ceremony to recognize lawyers for the number of cases that they would have been able to execute.

Meanwhile, access to justice and legal services can be a challenge for vulnerable groups of people across Guyana owing to high legal costs, limited legal aid reach in certain regions, backlog of cases and lengthy trials, and lack of human and technological resources.

Minister Persaud has signaled her intention to engage other existing law societies to provide legal pro-bono services and has stated that access to justice is even more important when someone has experienced domestic violence. Further, she noted that this initiative will complement the already existing and overburdened legal aid services.

Dr. Persaud is grateful to the Bar Association for its contribution and she thanked them for “unhesitatingly partnering with the Ministry.”

“I look forward to a time when there will be a lesser need for this type of service but for now, the Ministry is ensuring that every survivor has access to justice as is their fundamental human right,” Dr. Persaud has expressed.

In her speech, the Bar Association President offered that initiatives such as these do not imbalance the scales of ‘lady justice’ but rather assist in lending balance.

The Legal Pro-Bono 500 Initiative will be operationalized in January, 2022.